The history of DJing covers many decades of musical innovation and technological advancements since the art form first emerged.
From the early origins of DJing with records on radio stations to the advent of digital tools and AI, it’s been responsible for many music genres.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about where DJing began and the key players who have shaped the most popular music genres.
The Ultimate Guide To DJ History:
DJing has seen many changes since the term was first coined and is responsible for the creation of new music genres and technology.
We’ve covered everything from the evolution of equipment to the innovative DJs who popularized the art form worldwide.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the ultimate guide to the history of DJing:
The Origin Of The Term “Disc Jockey”
While most people today think of the term “disc jockey” in relation to DJs working with two decks, the term is much older.
In fact, the term “disc jockey” was originally coined in 1935 by Walter Winchell, the American gossip columnist and radio commentator.
The expression related to the shape of phonograph records, “disc,” and the operator of a machine, which at the time were called “jockeys.”
Winchell used the term to describe fellow radio announcer Martin Block, who came to fame by playing recorded music on air.
While modern dance club DJs create seamless transitions using a mixer, early radio DJs played individually selected songs.
By the early 1940s, radio DJ Jimmy Savile became known as the first DJ dance party playing jazz records in an Otley function room.
He came to prominence at the Loyal Order of Ancient Shepherds and, in 1947, claimed to be the first DJ to use twin turntables.
In fact, the first recorded use of twin turntables dates back to 1929, illustrated in the BBC Handbook and predating “disc jockey” as an expression.
A 1931 edition of Gramophone magazine listed a pair of turntables advertised for sale, again pre-dating the first usage of the term “disc jockey.”
DJs In The 1950s
The opening of the Whiskey à Go-Go nightclub in Paris in 1947 signaled the arrival of the first commercial discotheque.
French singer and nightclub impresario Regine started playing music with two turntables in 1953, with discos emerging around Europe.
Around this time, American radio DJs began performing at local dance events known as sock hops, playing popular recorded music to teenagers.
While these events occasionally featured live bands, for the most part, they involved a DJ who would play music from vinyl records.
Sometimes using just one turntable, sock hop DJs would often talk between records or hire a drummer to fill in the gaps.
It was in 1955 when DJ Bob Casey popularized using two turntables at American sock hops to maintain momentum on the dance floor.
By the late 1950s, the arrival of dedicated sound systems in the ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica, further developed the art of DJing.
Here, promoters would also refer to themselves as DJs and host impressive street parties in which the DJ was known as the “selector.”
Nightclubs In The 1960s
While discotheques first became in vogue during the mid-to-late-1950s, their popularity skyrocketed in the 1960s.
During this decade, specialist equipment was developed that could be used for DJing in clubs and using techniques such as beatmatching.
An example of early DJ hardware is the CMA-10-2DL mixer, designed by Rudy Bozak, an American audio electronics designer.
Bozak had previously worked developing loudspeakers and electronic musical instruments before developing DJ mixer designs.
Another DJ pioneer was Agustin Martinez, the Mexican-born resident of the Acapulco “Tequila a Go-Go” Nightclub.
Martinez is known as the first DJ who mixed and edited tracks live in 1964 and showcased what could be achieved with specialist gear.
By the late 1960s, beatmatching continued to evolve and grow in popularity, as well as the technique of slip-cuing to line up tracks.
At the forefront of these techniques was Francis Grasso, an American club DJ who performed at the Sanctuary nightclub in New York.
Hip-Hop In The 1970s
As the nightclub scene began to wane at the end of the 1960s, a new scene emerged on the streets of Europe and America.
Influenced by the Jamaican sound systems, revelers and DJs alike began hosting bloc parties, notably in New York City.
During this time, the father of hip-hop music, DJ Kool Herc, began performing in the Bronx and breaking new technical ground.
The Jamaican-born DJ began mixing back and forth between two identical records, marking the beginning of what is known as turntablism.
These techniques were enhanced by the release of the Technics SL-1200 turntable, which remains the industry standard to this day.
The mid-1970s also saw early experimentation in electronically produced music that incorporated hardware such as synthesizers.
German electronic music pioneer Kraftwerk would influence many dance music disc jockeys over the following years.
Their electronic drum machine beats would shape the style of hip-hop artist Afrika Bambaataa and house pioneer Frankie Knuckles.
Disco & The Return Of Nightclubs
While the first hip-hop song, “Rapper’s Delight,” began making waves, a new genre hit the pop charts called disco.
Blending soul and funk, disco songs climbed the mainstream charts, leading to a rebirth in discotheques and nightclubs worldwide.
In the late 1970s, DJ Tom L. Lewis organized a comprehensive list of disco songs arranged by their beats per minute (BPM) to assist DJs.
This created a huge opportunity for DJs to learn how to create seamless transitions between each song without changing its rhythm.
Known as the Disco Bible, this impressive collection of songs was featured in Billboard magazine and changed the DJing landscape.
Another significant development around this time was the advent of DJ record pools, also known as music pools.
International record labels would send their latest releases to the pool of DJs in exchange for feedback after they were played in clubs.
DJs would typically pay a monthly subscription to access these pools and establish their credibility by playing unreleased songs.
Today, the importance of DJ pools for promotion is as strong as ever, with everyone from club DJs to radio DJs using them for new music.
Electronic Music In The 1980s
The 1980s saw the role of DJs continuing to evolve, with the launch of MTV in 1981 signaling the arrival of the video jockey.
At the same time, new developments in electronic music production tools were paving the way for the emergence of house music.
The use of drum machines and synthesizers allowed DJs to create original music to play in their sets with seamless transitions.
Chicago-based DJ Frankie Knuckles was the first person to learn how to DJ house music and is known today as the Godfather of House Music.
The house music track “Your Love,” which he produced with Jamie Principle, catapulted this emerging genre into the limelight.
Knuckles began performing at the Warehouse in Chicago, from which house music was named and influenced techno music in the process.
DJs such as Derrick May, who had played dance music in the Detroit club scene, distanced themselves from house music with their own style.
By the mid-1980s, events like the Winter Music Conference paved the way for dedicated resources for professional DJs.
The first DJ-published music magazine, the TRAX Dance Music Guide, was followed by the launch of DJ Times in 1988.
Rave & The Second Summer Of Love
House music in the early 1990s evolved into the rave scene characterized by acid house and innovations in marketing.
While there was a lively rave scene in America and Europe, the United Kingdom would become synonymous with the expression.
Also known as the second summer of love (with the first taking place in the United States in the late 1960s), rave became a cultural phenomenon.
Dance music culture became firmly embedded in the public consciousness, even as British authorities cracked down on illegal gatherings.
The rave scene was intimately linked to the rise in Ecstasy and other illicit substances that saw a shift away from alcohol consumption.
It was during the era of rave and the second summer of love that some of the most famous DJs in the world cut their performing teeth.
As the crackdown continued, superclubs such as the Ministry of Sound were created to establish legal venues for revelers to attend.
Meanwhile, the arrival of CDJs and the digital DJ system Final Scratch changed the way DJs operated significantly.
Scratching & Turntablism In The 1990s
Hip-hop culture evolved in new directions during the 1990s with the widespread adoption of scratching and turntablism.
Whether using traditional Technics or Vestax turntables, or Final Scratch, hip-hop DJs were showcasing their scratching to the world.
The legendary hip-hop DJ Grand Wizard Theodore accidentally invented the scratching technique in 1975.
But it wasn’t until around 1995 that the term “turntablism” came into common use and became a widespread practice among hip-hop DJs.
Even DJs who didn’t specialize in hip-hop were learning how to scratch and incorporate the technique in their DJ sets.
Artists such as DJ Jazzy Jeff, DJ Qbert, and godfather of hip-hop Grandmaster Flash became hugely popular during this era.
Whereas hip-hop culture had previously emphasized MCing, the 1990s saw a new generation of DJs mastering innovative scratching techniques.
Beat juggling, click flares, and boomerang scratches all entered the common lexicon used by professional scratch DJs worldwide.
The Digital DJ Revolution
By the early 2000s, a second revolution in DJ equipment was taking shape that would change the way DJs operated.
This began with the arrival of the digital DJ system, with Pioneer leading the charge with their CDJ controllers.
One game-changing device was the Pioneer SVM-1000 Audio and Video Mixer, which allowed DJs to move away from vinyl records.
The Pioneer CDJ became the industry standard in dance music nightclubs around the world and rapidly expanded DJ culture.
In addition to mixing sets with CDs using Pioneer controllers, DJs optimized their sets by using mp3 digital files.
Online file-sharing platforms such as Napster, while illegal, were widely adopted by DJs looking to build impressive music collections.
This reduced the need for large, heavy bags for vinyl records and opened up the potential scope for club and mobile DJs.
There was also an influx of video equipment and projector systems that allowed DJs to incorporate music videos into their live sets.
While die-hard vinyl DJs continued to work with traditional records, most DJs began to eschew turntables in favor of digital tools.
This allowed them to introduce a list of special effects and samples that could be integrated into their DJ mixes.
EDM Culture & Artificial Intelligence
By the late 2000s and early 2010s, the digital music revolution was well underway, and mainstream EDM DJs took the world by storm.
These commercially-minded artists, including producers and DJs such as DeadMau5 and Martin Garrix, began to dominate music festivals.
Hundreds of thousands of people would see these EDM DJs performing at Coachella, Tomorrowland, and Ultra Music Festival.
Marking something of a second renaissance in terms of mainstream exposure, these DJs would amass a huge following and net worth.
By the 2020s, the advent of artificial intelligence in music paved the way for another evolutionary step in the history of DJing.
AI-powered tools emerged that would help DJs select music based on the latest trends and line up relevant tracks in their mixes.
Automated functions that handle EQing and isolating specific track elements performed the hard work and freed DJs up for creative mixing.
They also allow for a more streamlined workflow, for example, by cataloging music by BOM, key, and other elements.
AI integration continues to evolve and reshape how DJs operate, influencing both mixing and the nature of music production.
So that’s a wrap on this article exploring the history of DJing and the technological innovations and musical trends that emerged over the years.
As the art form has evolved over the years, its popularity has continued to grow, becoming more accessible than ever before.
With the emergence of artificial intelligence and a new generation of DJ controllers, DJing is set to evolve in exciting ways in the future.
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